Hey Parents: Quit Raising Specialists and Start Raising Omnivores


Sports-STACK-629x240In the glossy heart of the 1980s, in the dimly lit halls of East Anchorage High School there walked a god. He was rangy, blond, and bore the cinematically perfect name of Trace Savage. And Trace Savage was awesome

(Just say it out loud: Trace Savage.)

Trace Savage was awesome partly because he was cool, partly because he was nice, but mostly because he was the best all-around athlete any of us had ever seen: quarterback of the football team, starting forward on the basketball team, and track star. He was living our American sports dream, and the dream of everyone we knew.

Then, in the space of a few years, that dream changed.

Maybe it was the rise of superfocused prodigies like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters. Maybe it was the rise of parenting as a competitive sport. Maybe it was the ESPN-ification of youth sports, which lost its community base and morphed into a free-market bazaar of travel teams, trophies, and tournaments, with each kid (read: parent) seeking the holy grail of success: the college scholarship.

By the time the mid-nineties rolled around Trace Savage had vanished from the landscape like the white rhino. In his place stood a different species: the specialists.

Every sport became a highly organized year-round enterprise: indoor soccer in winter, hockey in summer, baseball all year round. Suddenly kids had to choose before they turned 10 or so, or risk falling behind the pack. The logic seems straightforward: if you want to be good at a sport, you should play intensively year-round. It makes perfect sense.

It was also, in retrospect, a perfectly bad idea. While early specialization works for a lucky few, an increasingly large wave of research has provided proof that early specialization doesn’t work so well for the rest of us. Let us count the ways:

I think the bigger point is this: when it comes to athletic skills, we are natural omnivores. Our bodies and brains are built to grow through variety of activities, not just one.

Think about what happens when you play multiple sports. You develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness, core strength. You cross-train skills from one sport to another.

It is not a coincidence that many top performers were multiple-sport kids growing up. Roger Federer played soccer until 12; Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant did the same. The reason they possess such brilliant footwork and vision is because they built those skills, over time, by being omnivorous.

Most important, multi-sport kids develop a far more useful skill: how to learn. They learn how to adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process.

I’d also argue that multi-sport kids have a better chance to stay emotionally healthy, because they’re free of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket pressure that goes with specialization — a pressure that can lead unhealthy patterns when it comes to relationships and emotional stability. (See: Woods, Tiger.) They are free of the sense that, should they fail, they are at risk of losing their identity, and letting down their parents.

So the real question is, what do you do? How do you nurture a Trace Savage in a Tiger Woods world? Here are three useful approaches, courtesy of Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport, who’s written widely on the subject.

  • Delay: wait as long as possible before choosing a single sport to pursue. It varies according to sport, but research puts the ideal age for specialization around the early teenage years.  (That doesn’t mean you start at that age, of course, but rather that you start getting serious.)
  • Diversify: embrace all possibilities to broaden skills. Experiment and cross train.
  • Co-operate: seek ways to build connections between the silos of individual sports, so that families are not forced to choose one over the other too soon.

I’d add one more word: Connect. One of the main reason specialization is hard to resist is the parental peer-pressure that comes with joining any “elite” team. When every other family on the team is skipping school to travel to that “prestigious” out-of-state tournament, it’s awfully hard to say no. So I’d suggest seeking out other parents, kids, and coaches who share the multi-sport view, and working together to create fun, homegrown, omnivorous alternatives.

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52 Responses to “Hey Parents: Quit Raising Specialists and Start Raising Omnivores”

  1. Jude says:

    I agree with Dave Hala about halfway though the thread. I’ve been an elite athlete, a high basketball player and set school records in the high jump and discus. A 6’3″ center, I wasn’t approached by any colleges offering scholarships…in athletics. I got full ride academic scholarships to Berkeley among other schools. I’m now a berkeley educated lawyer who also holds a phd from the top program of its kind in the world. Virtually every child who kicks a soccer ball or shoots a basket ends their “official” playing career after high school whether they played on elite specialized teams or not. For almost all of us sports teaches: respect for yourself, your teammates and your competitor; it teaches us to win and lose gracefully; it teaches us teamwork; it teaches the importance of practice to get better; it teaches calm under pressure; it instills a lifetime of pushing yourself to your limits, to finding one more gear you didn’t know you had, a mental toughness that helps us withstand life’s inevitable challenges.

    Athletics prepared me in each of these areas – I credit athletics with helping me develop that drive to keep on writing and working against tough odds even in my darkest moments. Even now – up at 2 am writing a brief for a deadline with a trial the next day- I can remember playing in the world championships and finding just one more gear even exhausted completely.

    This matters to me bc although I was gifted with an athletic body and an academic mind, I was not particularly coordinated and certainly would not have been picked for “elite” teams at 10 years old. Now my 6 year old daughter is as uncoordinated as I was but has the athletic build and sharp mind. I fear that so called elite teams and specialization will rob her of meaningful opportunities I had to diversify into my teens.

    When I hear self important “elite” coaches talk about 10,000 hours to mastery by senior year of college I ask: to what end? Use athletics to train for the diversity of life, to respect others, to lose (yes we all are vested by competitors-sometimes bc we weren’t out best and others bc the other was better), and to know how to push yourself to rise.

  2. […] The “stuff” issue is easily overcome with common sense. No one in the history of the world has ever been able to buy a true friend. And in the athletic realm, kids who specialize in sports are no better off than those who don’t, and in some cases, thespecialization is actually a detriment. […]

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